Kristoffer Oustad: Filth Haven
Malignant Records

Yen Pox: Between the Horizon and the Abyss
Malignant Records

Dark ambient doesn't get much better than these latest offerings from Malignant Records, a label that's specialized in the genre since 1994. On their respective releases, Kristoffer Oustad and Yen Pox show themselves to be at the top of their game, so to speak. Put simply, hopelessness never felt so good.

Don't be cowed by the Filth Haven title and foreboding cover images of Oustad's debut solo recording: there's beauty aplenty in its seven settings. Oustad, otherwise known as one-half of Swedish/Norwegian industrial duo K.N.O., uses analog synths, guitar, and field recordings to generate ominous soundscapes that suck the listener into their respective black holes. The material exemplifies his talent for sustaining tension and control throughout a piece, and at no time does Oustad falter in that regard. The recording's macabre tone is established at the outset when “Elberton 1979” obscures spoken ruminations with ominous horn blasts and dive-bombing wails (the track title presumably refers to the five granite columns adorned with cryptic ‘Guiding Thoughts' that mysteriously appeared on a hilltop in rural Elberton, Georgia at that time).

Field recorded sounds of paddling and bird cries locate “Row Me Over” in the countryside, but however bucolic the track might seem initially, the mood turns portentous when the skies darken and gloom sets in. Anything but pastoral, “Liquidator” shudders threateningly, its diseased punctuations suggesting the spread of a fatal virus, while, at album's end, synthesizer tones inject the sombre rumination “The Sun Maker” with a smattering of prog and churning pulsations situate “The Arch” within an industrial blast zone. Each setting on the fifty-minute release feels like a disturbing world unto itself, allusive in character yet nevertheless so evocative that the listener can't help but conjure cinematic imagery to go along with the musical material.

Though Steven Hall and Michael JV Hensley's Yen Pox project has existed since 1993, Between the Horizon and the Abyss is the first Yen Pox full-length to have appeared in over fifteen years. They make up for lost time by working eight monumental soundscapes into the release's seventy-four-minute framework. It's in many ways a complementary release to Filth Haven, given that both traffic in a style of similarly malevolent character, and we're again presented with expert soundsculptors well-versed in the black arts of dark ambient production.

Vivid in the extreme, a representative piece such as “White of the Eye” is like some horrific vision rendered into aural form, its sweeping textures suggestive of amplified skin slashings by a razor blade. But it's merely one example of the white heat generated by Yen Pox: quieter but no less disturbing, “Ashen Shroud” evokes the image of a dank underground chamber dedicated to human vivisection, while the sound of children's laughter appearing alongside whorls of haunted atmospherics turns “Cold Summer Skin” into a parent's worst nightmare.

One thing that distinguishes the Yen Pox collection from Oustad's is the participation of Dark Muse (San Francisco-based Ruby Smith), whose disembodied vocal drones and chants occasionally surface. All but one of the eight pieces push beyond the eight-minute mark, a move on the creators' part that makes each setting all the more immersive and consuming. There is admittedly something strange, perverse even, about celebrating a recording whose tracks include titles such as “Grief Ritual” and “Ashen Shroud,” but there's no denying the high level of music-making on display. It's bleak in the best way possible, and Between the Horizon and the Abyss provides an awesome listen when experienced at a loud volume.

July-August 2015